Don’t mistake the symptoms for the disease

Combined with his blunt attack on his own security system, Barack Obama’s deadline of tomorrow for a preliminary assessment of the apparently thwarted attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner will make big waves on this side of the pond. We can expect a revival of the “Londonistan ” analysis like this from Michael Burleigh.

Typically, the British elite tried to manage the problem by co-opting the self-appointed tribal chiefs, and paying them off with honours. Unfortunately, some of the so-called moderates also had outrageous views about adulterers, homosexuals or Jews, and worse, were disconnected from the radicalised youths who wished to dictate our foreign policy with bombs on buses and the Underground. In turn, under its Prevent policy, the Government perceives a difference between ”extremists” (who merely say they want to kill Jews or homosexuals), and ”violent extremists” who want to blow us all up.

Another contention is that allowing the huge figure of 1.5 million foreign students to enter the UK in eight years makes effective screening impossible. Andrew Green of Immigration Watch points out that in these strapped times, unis and colleges have a vested interest in foreign students’ fees. This scene is a recipe for disaster according the alarmed Right to which government has so far given no new answer. UCL, the university with which I’m associated is no shell outfit; it’s ranked at the country’s fourth highest performer. Abdulmutallab got in on merit. The Times reports

He is the fourth president of a London student Islamic society to face terrorist charges in three years. One is facing a retrial on charges that he was involved in the 2006 liquid bomb plot to blow up airliners. Two others have been convicted of terrorist offences since 2007. Mr Abdulmutallab left UCL last year. The Times has learnt that his attempt to renew his student visa in May this year was based on an application to study “life coaching” at a non-existent college. That visa refusal may have saved Britain from an attack

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The NY Times quotes

He would put references to Allah in the work he was doing,” ‘God is great’ would be at the end of everything he wrote,” but Mr. McGuinness said this did not strike him as done out of any extremism.”

The saving grace is that these guys had profile. Why did they break the old rule that if you want to be a sleeper, lie low? Because they couldn’t contain their commitment to the cause and needed to display it, must be an answer. Others will follow who are more disciplined. Here, I reminded of the old Danny Morrison saw: “ We only need to be lucky once.” Screening intake is one thing. Another is a far more sophisticated approach to discover the trigger points that turn a militant into a suicide bomber. A futile response would be to deny free speech and try to turn the universities into thought police. Organising a War on Terror week is a more natural activity for a career grabbing student than a would be terrorist. The neat trick is to appreciate the difference. Democracies like ours are fated to stumble towards containment, but mistaking the fish for the sea they swim is the wrong analysis.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London